Simon Eardley, April 2020
Foraging isn’t just about mushrooms in the autumn. Although we are in this strange time of Coronavirus lock down, we are all permitted a period of socially distanced exercise each day.
Is there a woodland or another green space near you? A field, or verge (hopefully not mown down by over-zealous local authorities) or maybe a patch of neglected land that’s looking wild and unloved but perhaps a little ‘overgrown.’ There are natural treasures you can find almost everywhere!
I’m a bit of a novice at this sort of thing but during the course of the last week or so I’ve successfully foraged some wonderful wild produce that is in abundance just now. Here are my top picks:
Ramsoms (Allium ursinum) better known as ‘wild garlic’, they are definitely a rival for bluebells at this time of the year in terms of the beautiful display of white flowers emerging from fabulous green leaves. Give the leaves a rub or better still pick a few and you’ll recognise the familiar smell of garlic. In a week or so the pungent aroma will be unmistakable as the dew falls at evening time.
Culinary uses: delicious and pungent pesto (perfect stirred through pasta or gnocchi) with a wonderful vivid green colour or added to garlic butter in garlic bread. I also have a recipe for wild garlic savoury scones which I hope to try. Sounds perfect with a lovely strong cheese or maybe toasted and buttered.
Garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata) or my personal favourite name for it, Jack by the Hedge. Otherwise know as Hedge Garlic, Poor Mans Mustard or Penny Hedge. This plant which grows a couple of feet or so high has lovely broad green leaves and a burst of white flowers at the top.
Rubbing the leaves gives off a gentle scent of garlic but less strong than Ransoms. Again, I’ve made some lovely pesto with this plant (basic recipe I follow is below) and enjoyed it stirred through pasta and baked over John Dory fish (I think any white fish would be great for it).
It took me a few days to use them up when first picked and they also looked fantastic in a vase as an impromptu display of flowers. It appears to be a native plant of Europe and is a little controversial in America where it is considered an invasive weed. It isn’t hard to see why as it produces many seeds which self-pollinate. I also discovered some behind an ancient wall near my family’s farm in Ince which first sparked an interest in it.
Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) my last and most recent pick, better known as the stinging nettle! I gingerly picked a heap of these in the Dukes Drive woodland near Chester recently, although you won’t struggle to find them anywhere at all.
Picking them isn’t an easy task as their furry stems and leaves do leave a tingle and can cause an irritation as everyone will know. There were, fortunately, plenty of dock leaves to hand but I managed to avoid too much stinging with a good pair of secateurs.
They have a bad reputation, perhaps reasonably, but there’s something lovely about their pointed green leaves. I also remember them being a favourite of Miss Eglantine Price, the witch from my favourite childhood film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Carrie, Charles and Paul were less keen to have them served up for supper!
Once home I steeped them in some boiling water for a good five minutes to stop the sting and then left them to dry out a little. Again, these nettles found themselves into a lovely pesto sauce which turned out to be the darkest green of all the pesto I’ve made, but with an interesting and punchy flavour.
Other uses could have been tea (with the leaves dried out a little) which would have definitely been interesting and worth a try. There was certainly a lovely pale green colour to the water that drained off when I’d steeped them. I understand they also have some herbal medicinal qualities and whilst I’m definitely not qualified to say either way, something edible, natural and free sounds good to me!
Our natural world has much to offer us all year round, not just inland but on our beaches too. I’m particularly looking forward to wild damsons and sloes in the autumn both from some secret locations around and about Chester and also from a tree that has been growing at my family’s farm for the best part of a hundred years and is still producing wonderful oval shaped purple fruits which make the best jelly and jam you can imagine (and not to mention flavoured gin too).
Exciting and interesting opportunities await!
A final word of warning. I’m very much an amateur forager and only pick those things I am confident about. There are some wonderful wild plants around but many are also toxic and poisonous. Do be careful, arm yourself with some knowledge, perhaps via an app or two but always err on the side of caution if you don’t know what you are picking and eating.
Here is the basic pesto recipe (which I loosely follow) and have adapted to meet my own tastes. I’ve used good parmesan cheese and extra virgin olive oil each time I’ve adapted this recipe and I’ve also heard some good reports about other cheeses, particularly blue cheese and replacing the olive oil for natural yoghurt. I’m also usually pretty liberal with the regular garlic cloves and black pepper.
1 cup of leaves (garlic mustard, wild garlic, nettles or anything else suitable)
2 tbsp other fresh herb (optional, a little basil is good though)
1 clove fresh garlic
1/4 Parmesan cheese shredded (other cheeses work well, especially blue)
2 tbsp toasted pine nut seeds (sunflower, walnuts or almonds are great too)
1/2 tsp sea salt
Black pepper to taste
1/2 – 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Place all ingredients in a food processor.
Process until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl if needed.
Check the consistency and add more oil if desired.
Serve over pasta, meat, fish, poultry or vegetables. As a bread dip would be nice too!
Other lovely resources
Website: www.abetterwaytothrive.com (where the above recipe came from).
Book: Milkwood. Real skills for down-to-earth living. Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar.
Book series: River Cottage Handbooks. Mushrooms (No. 1), Edible Seashore (No.5) Hedgerow (No.7) – each by John Wright.